Healthy self-esteem is so vital for our children, but where does a rock solid sense of self-worth and self-esteem come from? How do our children get a sense that they are valuable human beings?
Well it turns out that we, as parents, have an enormous impact on our child’s self-esteem and emotional health. When we consistently respond to our children as though their needs, feelings, thoughts and ideas are important we build their self-worth.
When we unconditionally love our children we give them the sense that they have intrinsic worth and their value is not just based on good behaviour, good grades or some other quality.
Here are some ways parents build self-esteem:
- Promoting secure attachment. This means consistently responding in a nurturing way to your baby’s emotional needs. Touching, holding and picking up your baby when distressed, gives them a deep sense that they are safe and secure and valued. When we respond to a crying baby, they learn a very BIG and EARLY lesson: “I am important, my needs matter”. These early learnings are deeply wired into the brain and can affect the child’s self-image for life.
- Listening to and valuing a child’s thoughts and opinions. When we listen and value child’s ideas, without disagreeing, interrupting or trying to explain how they are wrong, they learn that their ideas have value, that they are interesting people and people want to hear what they have to say. Simply being listened to is deeply affirming and validating.
- Responding to feelings with empathy, as though the child has a right to feel that way and their feelings are valid and important. This means just “being with” the child however they are feeling and not trying to talk them out of it, or “cheer them up”. When we try to change how a child is feeling we give them the message that they shouldn’t be feeling that way, that somehow that feeling is bad, wrong or scary. When we allow our child to just be as they are, they learn “I am ok as I am”, “this is just sadness (or fear or whatever) and I can cope with it.” They learn that feelings come and go and they can handle them.
- How we talk to our children becomes their inner voice. “You silly duffer, you’re so forgetful!” seems harmless, but do you really want your child to believe this about themselves? Put-downs, criticism, labels and judgement destroy self-esteem. “You”- Messages are often labels or judgements. “You are being annoying”. When we need to tell a child the effects of their behaviour on us, an “I”- Message is often better. “I don’t like it when you pull my sleeve” or “I don’t like crumbs all over the floor!” This simply gives the child information about our feelings and needs without attacking character. Positive “I”- Messages and appreciations build self-esteem. “I love you!” “Thanks so much for your help, that made things so much easier for me!”
- Descriptive praise rather than evaluative praise. Praise which evaluates the child does not build self-esteem. When we say “you’re a great artist!” or “you were so well behaved today” or “good girl!” we are evaluating the child and their performance. (Notice these are “You”- Messages.) External evaluation is so much a part of our society that it seems normal. But if a child always measures their worth by their grades or their performance, what happens to their sense of worth when they don’t get good grades or don’t perform so well? When we just DESCRIBE what the child did and how we FEEL about it, they can then surmise for themselves that they have worth. The locus of evaluation is within them rather than external. We can say “I love the colours in your painting!” or “I love hearing you play the guitar” or “I’m impressed with how you stuck at that” or even “You did it!” We can celebrate their successes with a “Woohoo!” or “Yay!”
- Helping them to successfully meet challenges in life. There are many challenges in life, from climbing the monkey bars, to handling conflict with a friend, and each time a child successfully meets a challenge this adds to their self-esteem. It can be hard to stand back and let them have a go and fall down and keep trying, but when we “take over” or tell them what to do, we take away from them an opportunity to feel successful and competent. Leaving them alone to sort it out by themselves is not great either, we want them to have successes! The best way to support is with a light touch. “Perhaps if you put your foot there?” “Do you want to hear an idea from me?” This helps them develop their own competence, and their own feeling of being capable and powerful.
- Having an attitude of faith and confidence in them, and pointing out their strengths. When we believe in our kids, they then think “if Mum or Dad thinks I am capable then I must be!” You can help them remember their strengths and times they have succeeded in the past, “I remember the time that you…..”Let them try new things without correcting them or hovering over them. Resist the urge to say “be careful” when they climb trees!
- Avoid time outs, punishments or using consequences to manage behaviour. You don’t need to be punitive to guide a child’s behaviour. Especially never punish by withdrawing your love and affection.
Finally DELIGHT in your child. Not for anything they have done, but simply for the beautiful being they are. Appreciate and adore your child exactly as they are. What they see reflected in your eyes, is how they will come to view themselves.